CLEMSON, S.C. – Dexter Strickland remembers it wasn’t so long ago when it seemed North Carolina always was out of sync and likely headed to a very un-Tar Heel-like season of struggles.
But those times seem years ago the way Strickland and the Tar Heels are playing right now.
Strickland tied his season high with 16 points and led all five North Carolina starters in double figures in a 68-59 win at Clemson on Thursday night.
The victory was a season’s best fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference win for the Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 ACC) and gave the program its ninth straight 20-win season.
“We came a long way, I think,” Strickland said. “And the scary thing is we still have games to play.”
Strickland’s message was clear: Beware of the Tar Heels in March.
Especially if they perform as they did in beating Clemson (13-14, 5-10) for a 15th time in 16 tries.
They shot 47.3 percent (26 of 55), just the second time in six games they’ve broken 45 percent from the field. Strickland led the way there too, hitting seven of his nine attempts.
Reggie Bullock had 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting and nine rebounds. James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston had 11 points each, while Marcus Paige added 10 points.
Not everything was perfect.
The Tar Heels led 64-47 with roughly five minutes to play before giving up a 12-2 Clemson run that cut the lead to single digits. North Carolina was outrebounded by Clemson 39-30 and 14-8 on offensive boards, something that frustrated coach Roy Williams. Clemson’s players “were going after the ball,” Williams said. “We were acting like a bunch of pansies. Some of those were long rebounds that bounced out, and we’re standing there watching it.”
Strickland echoed his coach’s sentiments about the sloppy finish. Williams “was excited that we got the ‘W,’ but he was kind of upset we didn’t play as well as we did in the first half,” Strickland said.
But Strickland believes things are falling into place for his team to again be a factor during college basketball’s most important month.
“We’re playing together, even better. Team chemistry is there,” he said. “We’re just getting more comfortable. Everybody’s having more confidence and everybody knows their role by now.”
It was Williams’ 23rd season with at least 20 victories in his 25 years as a head coach, first at Kansas for 15 seasons and now with the Tar Heels. That achievement, though, was not on his mind after this one. “Boy, we finished the game about as ugly as you can finish,” he said.
Devin Booker had 25 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Tigers, who lost their third straight and for the sixth time in the past seven games. Milton Jennings also had a double-double for Clemson with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
There are few better bets than the Tar Heels reaching 20 wins in a season. They’ve reached the milestone in 40 of the past 43 years and last missed the mark in Williams’ first season in 2003-04.
Some thought this might’ve been another year when the Tar Heels would stub their toe after opening ACC play 0-2 with losses to Virginia and Miami.
North Carolina has rebounded strongly to win 10 of its past 13 league games and head a group tied for third in the chase for ACC Tournament byes in two weeks.
Clemson struggled in the backcourt as guards Rod Hall, Damarcus Harrison and Jordan Roper – all starters – combined to shoot 4-of-25.
“Our guard play was pretty poor,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “We had terrible turnovers that cost us. We had a couple of chances to get the game in a winnable place, and our young guards did not play well.”
The Tar Heels used an 18-6 run the final 10 minutes of the opening half to take control. They eventually grew the lead to 64-47 on Hairston’s third 3-pointer with about five minutes to play. Clemson took off on a 12-2 stretch and briefly gave the sold-out crowd something to cheer about to cut the lead to 66-59. But the Tigers couldn’t get any closer.
These teams hadn’t met at Littlejohn Coliseum in two seasons since 2011.
While the Tigers fare better at home against the Tar Heels than at Chapel Hill – Clemson is a dreadful 0-56 when playing at North Carolina – they’ve lost four of the past five series games played here.
Things didn’t improve before the game as Clemson lost one of its leading scorers at the afternoon shoot-around – forward K.J. McDaniels, second on the team at 10.7 points a game, sprained his ankle and did not play.